By Mohamed Bali
Khat is defined as the leaves and young shoots of Catha edulis, an ever-green shrub of the family Celestraceae. People in East Africa and southern part of the Arabian Peninsula customarily chew leaves to produce a state of euphoria and stimulation.
Khat leaves contain psychoactive ingredients known as Cathinone, which is structurally and chemically similar to d-amphetamine, and Cathine, a milder form of Cathinone. Fresh leaves contain both ingredients; those left unrefrigerated beyond 48 hours would contain only Cathine which explains users' preference for fresh leaves. This is because Cathinone, the most potent active principle of Khat, is chemically unstable.
Peter Kalix (1986), a noted Swiss scholar of Khat, gave a brief account of Khat and how it is used. Apparently, it was taken socially to induce feelings of pleasure and euphoria, produce excitation, banish sleep, and enhance self-esteem while energy and alertness seem to be increased. It was used as a stimulant to dispel feelings of hunger and fatigue. The chewer becomes communicative and tends toward social interaction, and may develop ideas of greatness, "wisdom" and latent aggressivity. During the chewing there are lively discussions often pertaining to matters of general interest, and in this way the Khat catalyzes social interaction and integration.
In animals, too, Khat produces excitation and increased motor activity. In humans, it is a stimulant producing exaltation, a feeling of being liberated from space and time. It may produce extreme loquacity, inane and childish laughter, and eventually a semi-coma. Upon first chewing Khat, the initial effects were unpleasant and included dizziness, lassitude, tachycardia, and sometimes epigastric pain. Gradually more pleasant feelings replaced these inaugral thoughts. The subjects had feelings of bliss, clarity of thoughts, and become euphoric and overly energetic. Sometimes Khat produced depression, sleepiness, and then deep sleep. The chronic user, a shadow behind glassy eyes and tired face, tended to be euphoric continually.
In his book, The First Footsteps in East Africa, Richard Burton provides one of the earliest detailed accounts, as the first European to enter the forbidden city of Harar, now in Ethiopia. He describes an occasion in Harar where Khat was being chewed in his company:
In Somaliland, Khat chewing remained confined to the mystics and Sufi circles, who used the leafy plant to banish sleep during their Koran recitation sessions, until the 1950s, when a new urban and secular groups took up the chewing of the khat, as Charles Geshekter explains:
Chewing qaad became especially popular among small groups of poets known alternatively as the buugaan buug or qaraami, who emphasized social solidarity and community of purpose through their poems (often recited with instrumental music); their themes included romance, extra-marital flirtations, consumer expectations, and political matters. Chewing qaad for hours became an important ritual of friendship and mutual trust which engendered social cohesion through the custom of chewing together from a common bundle of twigs. Before the War, nomads sometimes referred to these residents collectively as the Kabacad ("white shoes," in other words, their European shoes and trousers), or occasionally, more pejoratively, as nasraani("Christians"). By the late 1940s, when Governor Gerald Reece tried to proscribe qaad-chewing, his efforts simply stimulated its consumption as "chewing" became symbolic of one's refusal to accept colonialist authority.(Geshekter, 1985:7)
In Yemen and the Horn of Africa, Khat is much more than a psychtropic plant. It is the basis of a lifestyle and plays a dominant role in all male activities - celebrations, marriages, business proceedings, and political meetings, as Lancaster explains in a recent article:
Since only fresh leaves have the desired effects, the Khat habit has remained to those areas. It is seedless, and this may explain its limitation to Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen. However, with the development of international travel Khat use tends to spread to countries far away from the areas of cultivation. Khat is now air-freighted and is available in Europe and North America, following the migration routes of the increasing number of immigrants from East Africa and Southern Arabia.
Advocates of Khat use claim that it eases symptoms of diabetes, asthma, and stomach/intestinal tract disorders, and facilitates Somaliland's unique democracy of face-to-face social interactions and negotiations. On the other hand, opponents claim that Khat damages health, suppresses appetite, prevents sleep, and drains the economy. In this note, the magnitude of the social problem and its economic significance is left to the readers to conjecture. There has been much talk on this subject at various levels and times and many groups of "experts" have been commissioned to study Khat in order to recommend banning it or restricting the continued use of it (Elmi, 1987).
Omar Mohammed, possibly the harshest critic of the khat chewing in Somaliland, states, possibly while chewing the Khat itself,
|Only at weekend||7||35|
|Only with friends||12||60|
|Both alone and with friends||7||35|
|Beverage drunk with Khat|
|Soft drink alone||17||85|
|Both soft drinks and alcohol||2||10|
Over the past year, the same debate has been played out through Minnesota's courts, police precincts, and international ports of entry. Fueled by a growing immigrant community from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, and the Middle East, the demand for the drug known as khat is on the rise. It's a social drug back home, with groups of men gathering to chew the leaves of the catha edulis tree at the end of their day. But in the United States, it's an illegal drug, classified as a schedule-one narcotic by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which puts it in the same legal category as heroin and cocaine.
As is often the case in cross-cultural phenomena, even the nature of the drug itself is cloudy, and translates poorly. "I think some even say it has less effect than coffee," says Osman Sahardeed, coordinator of the Somali Community of Minnesota. In Somalia, he says, "the elders used it. It was widely accepted." Out of the 600 or 700 drug cases Hennepin County District Court Judge Kevin Burke heard in the past year, a handful concerned khat. "I'd say it's more like alcohol," he hazards. "You'd have to drink one hell of a lot of coffee to mess up your life. I'm a little hesitant to say, 'Don't worry about khat.' I may have seen a fairly skewed version of users, but the people that I've seen are not horribly strung out. I'm not trying to excuse use of the drug, but it pales in comparison to the people I've seen on crack or meth."
Jim Bransford, who runs Excelsior Project, Inc., the drug-and-alcohol counseling center where Ugas helps out, likens chewing khat to chewing coca leaves: a mild, culturally accepted stimulant that bears no comparison to the concentrated cocaine derivative extracted from the coca plant. "What makes it illegal," he maintains, "is that the DEA says it is."
Part of the confusion over khat's potency comes from the active ingredients in the catha edulis leaves, particularly cathinone, which is what gives the drug its schedule-one priority on the DEA list. But cathinone is present mostly in fresh khat, and steadily diminishes with the age of the leaves.
Because stale khat loses its cathinone, shipments come by airplane from Canada and England (where the drug is legal) in small packages tied up in banana leaves to preserve moisture. Someone smuggling khat into the country could face up to life in prison, although first-time offenders are generally treated more leniently and recent changes in immigration law allow repeat offenders to be deported. The problem is that few Somalis know that khat, a drug widely accepted in their homeland, is even illegal here.
In the past year, only some nine people have been arrested and charged in Hennepin County with possessing khat. With the exception of one English baggage handler deported for trying to smuggle the drug, they have all been Somalis caught with small amounts appropriate for personal use and none have been sentenced to jail time.
Ugas, who is a court interpreter, remembers one case in which the police stopped a Somali in his car who happened to be chewing khat. "They said, 'What do you do with khat?' And he says, 'Oh that? I'm selling it.' That shows you they don't know that it's a drug."
Since the Somali civil war, immigration from the African nation has been on the rise. Estimates of the number of Somalis living in Minnesota range upward from 10,000, and many come to the Twin Cities having never lived with running water or coped with urban life, much less with an American city. "Khat is something that can help them feel like they are at home," Ugas says. "By doing khat and talking with friends, it reminds them that, while they are far from home at least by distance, they are still near Somalia."
"These are new immigrants to the country and they need to get educated to a lot of things," says Sahardeed, whose organization, Somali Community of Minnesota, is designed to do just that. Sahardeed was first alerted to the illegality of khat when a young Somali came to him after he was arrested for possessing the drug. It took him by surprise. "What surprised me the most is that if it's a drug, if it has side effects, or some other stuff, then the British would have a law before anyone else because they are who colonized our part of the world," he reasons. "In England, they take taxes from people, they import khat the same as tea. And London," he laughs, "it's not like Amsterdam, if you know what I'm saying."
But in the United States, in the era of rigid drug prohibition, the legalization of khat stands little chance, whatever its place in the culture of African immigrants. "The active ingredients are serious drugs. They're not caffeine," says Jim Spencer, an attorney with the criminal division of the state attorney general's office. "Generally, the social use of drugs is not an excuse. My own perception is that khat is a growing problem."
If the DEA needed any ammunition as to the seriousness of khat, it could have cited stories from western reporters covering the Somali civil war. News reports from the region detailed drug-crazed "war lords" sporting fistfuls of grenades and mouths full of khat. Even the usually staid Journal of the American Medical Association strayed into hyperbolic territory when it featured the drug in a 1993 article. "It is difficult to determine just how much the aggression-inducing nature of khat has contributed," JAMA reported, "to what is already a cauldron of anarchy and violence in Somalia. Reports in the media have associated khat chewing with reckless driving, senseless arguments, and the exchange of gunfire."
Sahardeed, however, calls these reports "just nonsense. I have been with Somali all my life, and I've never seen a Somali guy who gets crazy or anything like that while chewing khat. I've never seen anything like it."
Ugas hopes to launch a program called the Somali Community Service Center that would not only alert Somalis to the risks of using khat, but would help them with the wider range of issues they face as recent immigrants to the United States. To Ugas, the two are inseparable. "It's about the conflict of cultures. They're refugees from the civil war, really. Some of them saw their own parents killed in front of them. Right now there are no psychologists or social workers who can see what's going on with them...."
Like Ugas, Sahardeed says his main concern is alerting Somali immigrants to the dangers they face--arrest, and under the new immigration laws, possible deportation--if they are found with khat. "What we want is to educate the people." But the fact that khat is often a mild drug and its universal cultural acceptance back home--Ugas offers that 80 percent of his countrymen use khat--make the job more difficult. But deportation and jail time are all too real deterrents. "If anybody wants to abide by the laws of this country," says Sahardeed, "we, the Somalis, want to do that."
RECOMMENDING OFFICE : Division of Import Operations & Policy, HFC-170
REASON FOR ALERT : Catha Edulis (khat) is a shrub cultivated for its leaves that act as a "stimulant narcotic" when chewed or used as a tea. Its leaves and young shoots are used by chewing, by brewing as a tea, or by smoking in water pipes according to the Drug Enforcement Administration) to get a stimulant effect, caused by the compound cathinone, (which is similar to that of amphetamine and its congeners).
Review of detention data for FY 90-92, shows detentions of Catha Edulis (khat) continue to be made on a limited basis (1 per year). However, due to the number of scientific and common names under which importation of the substance may be attempted, the import alert remains in effect.
INSTRUCTIONS : Detain all entries of khat.
Alert your local Customs Office and USDA of FDA's continued interest in preventing entry of khat so that we are informed of all such entries. Provide Customs with a list of the various names under which this item might be declared when entered and request that movement under bond be denied because of possible distribution. Inform both Customs and USDA that khat may be falsely declared as Molokheya (Corchorus olitorius), a permitted Egyptian vegetable also known as tossa jute and jew's mallow.
PREPARED BY : Linda A. Wisniowski, DIOP, 301-443-6553. Attachm ent - Import Alert #66-23
By Jeb Blount, Saturday Night/March 1996
"We want to import it legally," he says, "but Agriculture Canada won't give us a license. This is part of culture - it's nothing bad. At home, everybody chews it. Here, we pay too much."
Or, to put it more precisely, Ahmed's customers do. The mark-ups are astronomical: his couriers pay less than five dollars for a 100-gram packet in Britain, where Khat is legally imported from Kenya, and then sneak it into Canada, where Ahmed sells it to dealers for forty dollars. Users, mostly Somalis in the barren, windswept apartment blocks of Toronto's suburbs, pay fifty dollars.
But, for a smuggler, Ahmed seems uninterested in getting rich. (His earnings are dispersed among an extended family in Canada, Europe, and Africa, and during the week he volunteers at a community-service agency, helping others with welfare and immigration problems). His goal is efficiency. Customs nab his couriers with $5000 fines, so Ahmed is considering an innovation - dumping his Somali "mules" for whites, because Cutoms is easier on them.
Tonight, however, there's good news. "They've left the airport and are moving east," Ahmed reports, tracking his latest shipment via a pay phone in a strip-mall bar.
Forty-five minutes later, he arrives at an apartment near the top of a tall building at the edge of the city. He removes his shoes and joins several other Somali men who are sitting on green, late-twentieth-century Moorish floor cushions. Children peek in from the hall. On the TV in the corner, Jerry Springer is helping secret lovers unveil their passions.
Ahmed is handed a black plastic bag that contains a bundle of rubbery twigs wrapped in banana leaf. He nibbles the soft green tip of a dandelion-sized Khat branch, then sets to work on the reddish bark on the lower stem, peeling it off with his teeth. "It makes you want to talk," he says, between chews.
"It makes you think," a nighbour adds, pointing to his head. "It also makes you ... you know... good with the wife," Ahmed says, pumping his fist back and forth. "When I go home...she loves me." His friends nod and giggle shyly.
The tips taste bittersweet, like a stalk of grass gone to seed, but the bark is just bitter. Khat juice combines with saliva as glands in the cheek and beneath the tongue respond toa rough, dry sensation. Soon, my chaw is full of a bright-green paste, but nothing happens - right away.
I start feeling up, not jumpy, but coltish, then happy and talkative. I want to dance. I talk and bop and sway in place to some music. Hours later, as the effects wears off, my emotions move about like an automatic transmission slightly out of tune. As the sun comes up, I gently downshift into gentle tingles. Idling, I fall asleep.
By David Josar, The Detroit News, July 8, 1997.
The safest way to avoid any predictable health risk of excessive khat use is to avoid chewing but if one decides to continue with his/her habit, here are some hints that might be of help to minimise the risks: